The time of year has come again when college students in the United States who have completed their study programs celebrate their success.
Every spring, U.S. colleges and universities hold a special ceremony called commencement to honor students who graduate. During the ceremony the students receive diplomas, the documents that recognize the completion of their studies.
Commencement ceremonies usually include guests who give speeches to express praise and offer advice to the new graduates.
The speakers are often successful or well-known and well-respected in fields such as business, politics or entertainment. Sometimes a commencement speaker is a former student of the college or university. The larger or more well-known a school is, the more likely their commencement speaker will be someone famous.
The 2019 commencement season, for example, has seen many popular writers, actors and singers speak on issues the graduates may face in the years to come. But few have gained as much attention as this year’s speaker at the Morehouse College graduation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia.
Morehouse is among a group of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. HBCUs were established before the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964. They were designed to offer higher education to African-Americans, because many schools in the country would not admit black students.
Morehouse’s 2019 commencement speaker was Robert F. Smith, founder of the investment company Vista Equity Partners. Earlier this year, Forbes magazine reported Smith to be the wealthiest African-American in the United States.
On May 19, Smith made a surprising announcement during his speech to the nearly 400 Morehouse graduates in attendance. He would be paying off all of their student loan debt.
“On behalf of the eight generations of my family that have been in this country, we’re gonna put a little fuel in your bus,” Smith said, followed by cheers from the crowd.
The estimated cost of Smith’s promise is about $40 million. This is in addition to the $1.5 million he donated to Morehouse in January.
Twenty-two-year-old Aaron Mitchom graduated with a degree in finance. He told the Associated Press he had taken out $200,000 in student loans to pay for his education at Morehouse. He noted that in the weeks before graduation, he had calculated how long it would take him to settle that debt. His finding? Twenty-five years if he paid half of his expected earnings every month.
In one short moment, that responsibility disappeared. Mitchom said he began to cry as he sat among the graduates.
“I don’t have to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “I was shocked. My heart dropped. We all cried. In the moment it was like a burden had been taken off.”
Most American college students and their families share major concern about student debt and the rising cost of higher education. The U.S. central banking system, or Federal Reserve, reports that student loan debt reached a record high this year of $1.5 trillion.
But Smith did not give his gift without expectations of his own. He asked the graduates to help others the way he had helped them, and said he hoped that “every class has the same opportunity going forward.”
“Because we are enough to take care of our own community,” Smith added. “We are enough to ensure that we have all the opportunities of the American dream. And we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words.”
Helping others was the subject of several commencement speeches that gained national attention this year.
Media leader and television producer Oprah Winfrey was the commencement speaker at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. She spoke about the importance of choosing to serve the greater good.
“The truth is, you cannot fix everything,” Winfrey said. “But what you can do, here and now, is make a decision, because life is about decisions. And the decision is that you will use your life in service; you will be in service to life. You will speak up. You will show up. You will stand up. You will sit in. You will volunteer. You will vote. You will shout out. You will help. You will lend a hand.”
Actor Kristen Bell spoke at the University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts commencement on May 3.
“When you respect the idea that you are sharing the earth with other humans, and when you lead with your nice foot forward, you’ll win, every time,” said Bell. “It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow … But I promise you, it will appear exactly when you need it.”
I’m Pete Musto.
And I’m Dorothy Gundy.
Words in This Story
graduate – v. to earn a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university
founder – n. a person who creates or establishes something that is meant to last for a long time, such as a business or school
on behalf of – n. as a representative of someone
degree – n. an official document and title that is given to someone who has successfully completed a series of classes at a college or university
calculate(d) – v. to find a number or answer by using mathematical processes
peanut butter and jelly sandwiche(s) – n. two pieces of bread with a creamy food made from peanuts and a sweet and soft food made by boiling sugar and fruit juice until it is thick between them
burden – n. someone or something that is very difficult to accept, do, or deal with
opportunity – n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done